Primal Therapy -- An Experience with Enchantment
by Curtis Knecht, MFCC
Copyright Curtis Knecht 1991
The year was 1970. Nixon occupied the White House. His troops occupied Vietnam and Cambodia. A decade of the civil rights movement, assassinations and social upheaval had confused and polarized American families. Feminists attacked the male power elite. Parents and kids glared at each other across a "Generation Gap." The American dream was under siege. Best Picture that year was "Patton." The Beatles had broken up. Baby Boomers struggled into an uncertain adulthood. Gasoline contained lead. DDT was thinning the eggs of the Brown Pelican. LSD was expanding the consciousness of young kids. It was a time of extremes. On the national bestseller list was a book titled The Primal Scream written by a Los Angeles psychologist named Arthur Janov. Subtitled "Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis," it described a process which transformed people into "a new kind of human being," not only curing their neuroses but inspiring them to "make a new world in which to live -- a real world designed to solve the real problems of its inhabitants." During a therapy session one day, Janov heard a client scream from the depths of his soul. He described it as "a piercing, deathlike scream that rattled the walls of my office." Janov followed the path of that scream to discover something he called Primal Pain. This Pain, Janov hypothesized, gets locked into childrens' unconscious minds as a way of protecting them from trauma and deprivation which they cannot handle. It remains locked in the child's unconscious being as he grows up. From this forgotten place, it causes endless suffering (neurosis) until it is released in an emotional experience of great intensity which Janov called "Primalling." Through this "Primalling," adults re-experience their original childhood traumas and deprivations. It's an intense feeling process that frees a person from the destructive effects of his unconscious Pain. Janov wrote that he'd developed a predictable, scientific method of eliciting this Primal experience in people. His therapy, he said, was "revolutionary, because it involves overthrowing the neurotic system by a forceful upheaval. Nothing short of that will eliminate neurosis." It was a dangerous process, dealing, as it were, with the nuclear power of the psyche. Only Janov-trained therapists were competent to do it. The results, however, were stunning. Gone were depressions, addictions, tension, marital problems, phobias, overwork, sexual malfunctions and perversions, criminal behavior and psychoses (these took a little longer but eliminated the need for drugs). Even homosexuality, which Janov defined as a "disease" and "the denial of real sexuality," was being cured by his therapy. Results were being attained within weeks and months. Janov flatly stated, "By the time someone has reached his eighth month (of therapy), he is generally well." This meant, according to Janov, that a person would never need therapy again. It was quite a contrast to the years required by the psychoanalytic therapies. To replace neurotic suffering, there emerged a "tensionless, defense-free life in which one is completely his own self and experiences a deep feeling and internal unity." Like the Velveteen Rabbit, one becomes Real. From all parts of the world, people came to Los Angeles to undergo Primal Therapy at Janov's Institute. In 1970, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came. They spoke of their experience with enthusiasm. There was a lengthy waiting list to get into the therapy despite the large fee which was paid in advance. It was an American phenomenon, the hula hoop of the 70's. I remember clearly the Sunday eighteen years ago when I read Janov's book and knew without question that Primal Therapy was the answer for me. It was January, 1973. I was an idealistic, 24-year-old white man from an affluent, well-educated, and very troubled family -- one of the heirs to the American dream of my parents' generation. I was confused by childhood demons and changing times. I was terribly unhappy with my life and desperate for a change. I'd tried psychedelic drugs, "counterculture" life, conventional psychotherapy, even college and hard work. Nothing quelled the pains in my heart. Janov spoke to that torment and confusion, my deep longing for guidance and initiation. It promised an arduous inner journey, heroic battled with my worst fears and deepest desires, then the rebirth of a Self filled with power, freedom, and authenticity. Janov made it clear that Primal was the only way to achieve what I desired, and I believed him. His words made such sense to me, and the testimonials of his patients confirmed it. I had to go, no matter what. I applied to enter the therapy and was quickly accepted. In May, 1973, I left my work, family, and friends to move to Los Angeles and enter the Primal world. I thought that within six or eight months I would return home, transformed by Janov's remarkable discovery. Nine years later, February, 1982, I emerged. It had certainly been an odyssey. During those years, I ate, slept, breathed, and lived Primal Therapy. I entered as a patient and soon became a therapist. I married a therapist, and all my friends were therapists. I returned to school to receive the degrees and license which would permit me to practice psychotherapy in the state of California. I did this so I could be a Primal Therapist. I believed it to be the only real work anyone could do. Arthur Janov trained me, challenged me, abused me, and turned me into an expert Primal Therapist. I became a trusted lieutenant, Senior Therapist, privy to the inner circle. I shared a special power: I could Feel. I shared a special knowledge: I knew how to make others Feel. I believed deeply in what I was doing, even when outwardly critical. I held to aspects of that belief with a tenacity which still amazes me. I learned much on my journey. I learned with skill and precision how to express my deepest feelings, and how to elicit that expression in others. Grief, rage, fear, terror, and desire were daily companions (either mine or someone else's). Primal Theory and its practice became second nature to me. So did the workings of the Primal Institute. I learned how the therapists lived and worked and ran the business. It was a small, insulated, and intense world which Art created and we maintained. It was my world, and I learned it well. Ultimately, I learned that Janov's promise was a lie. At times a wonderful lie, a well-constructed lie, even a lie which contained pockets of truth which could be fresh and effective in their application. But at base-root-bottom, it was, and still is, a nasty little lie. The therapy did not work. Primal Therapy did not cure neurosis. Art's promise drew people into a closed therapeutic system wherein therapists used experimental techniques to elicit intense and painful experiences in their patients. Patients' defense systems were broken and assaulted in many ways -- some quite abusive -- in order to elicit the Primal experience. Their experiences could be real and powerful. They could easily convince one of the veracity of Janov's discovery. However, there was no "scientific and predictable" curative process occurring. It was hit and miss. Positive changes couldn't be attributed to this Primal process with any certainty. Negative changes could. People became dependent on the therapy, addicted to "having Primals." Their lives took on a similar, Pain-oriented style. They were the walking wounded. They focused only on Pain, spoke a common "Primal" language, and followed the Primal rules. It created a narrow and, ultimately, destructive mentality. The majority who came for the transformation seemed to leave the therapy feeling they had experienced something important, but certainly not what had been described by Janov's books. Most did not deal with the original issues which had brought them to the therapy. Others left after becoming more fragmented and disoriented than before, with at least two becoming violent toward the Institute. A significant number became so distraught that they killed themselves. Janov claimed to have discovered the Truth about human Reality. I discovered that he ran an extremely profitable business for himself and a chosen few based on a promise that was never fulfilled. Technically, it was a therapy business, but mostly it was a cult movement with all the characteristic dynamics. Those cult dynamics were: A Charismatic leader or Central Belief: Janov and his "Discovery" that the expression of repressed pain cures all ills. Oppositional: it set itself up in rigid opposition to the values of the dominant culture and all of psychotherapy. Exclusivistic: it was the Only cure; Primal possessed the Truth; Janov said, "The Truth (Primal) is highly intolerant of untruths (everything else)." Legalistic: many rules and regulations for correct "Feeling" behavior. Subjective: emphasis on feeling and experience; anti-intellectual. Persecution Conscious: this special community possesses the Truth; people were always attacking Janov out of their ignorance. Sanction Oriented: if you don't do Primal Therapy, you'll be neurotic forever, doomed. Esoteric: the inner truth shared by therapists was different than the outer truth presented to the patients and the public. The important question: was it a destructive cult, or was it neutral? Janov claimed that his therapy would transform people into a new kind of person. I found the therapists and the Janovs to be the same old kind of people. The running of the business was based on human greed, deep hypocrisy, and a need for fame and fortune at whatever cost. Nor were therapists the "Post Primal" people Janov described. Many had disturbing personal problems which had easily survived their own therapy. The Institute was a difficult workplace. Training techniques were abusive. The political infighting and positioning among the staff was the same as any business which offers lucre at the top. The humor, for the most part, was mean- spirited. Attitudes were arrogant and insulting of anything which challenged the Primal belief system. Above all there were unethical and unprofessional practices built into the system: dual relationships (business and sexual) between therapist and patient, false claims of results, false advertising, interns working beyond their level of skill, treatment of patients who were too disturbed for this kind of "therapy," emotional harm caused by a system that opened people up to intense feeling without adequate follow-up, perhaps even medical malpractice by the neurologist who prescribed medication according to "Primal" guidelines. In this context, even therapists who wanted to provide effective therapy would fail. There were well-meaning and creative people who worked hard to make Primal Therapy live up to its promise. We failed. The system was too destructive. That it took me eight years to learn this indicated how desperate my life was when I went to the therapy, how much I needed to believe in a powerful and omniscient world view, how isolated I was in the world, and how well Janov's promises matched my personal desires as well as the political and cultural forces of those times. It also speaks to the effectiveness of the Primal indoctrination techniques. I also think it is an indication that there are aspects of Primal Therapy which contain therapeutic value. The techniques for eliciting painful feelings can be quite effective. The grief process is well understood and may be healing, depending on the context. Patients' experiences are often quite real and dramatic. Unfortunately, whatever there was of value was completely overshadowed and negated by the destructive superstructure within which it was housed. I worked hard to become a competent therapist. I struggled against the drawbacks in the system. I became competent, but the system burned me out. When I left that world in 1982, it was a shock. I realized I'd been in a cult. As with anyone who leaves a cult, I had to learn different ways of looking at the world and myself in it. It was a confusing and disorienting process which challenged my beliefs on many levels. I experienced deep ambivalence. My self-esteem suffered tremendously. I know how destructive the Primal world had been, yet I couldn't reject it completely. I had given such a big part of myself to it. I had to believe there was value there. I rejected the Institute and its destructive practices. I could no longer be a part of that. But I wasn't sure about the theory. After almost a year of "floating" and "decompression," I decided to continue working as a therapist. I wanted nothing to do with Primal Therapy. This meant I needed to open up to other ways of thinking and working in my profession. Even though I was already a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Counselor, I knew I needed to start learning my craft all over again. So I worked a year doing psychoanalytic psychotherapy, trained a year in a therapeutic preschool using behaviorist and psychodynamic thinking, trained three-and-a-half years at the Family Therapy Institute of Southern California, worked in South-Central Los Angeles treating sexually abused children and their families, then worked as a Family Therapist at the Los Angeles Indian Center. I read books, took classes, attended workshops, and was trained to provide effective and ethical therapy. I worked with couples, families, and children. I was drawn to the thinking of the Family Therapists. Their work was respectful, effective, and filled with life and creativity. Initially, I consciously rejected the psychodynamic approach to therapy. This is the Freudian approach on which Janov based his theory. It basically says that repressed childhood trauma must be worked through in one way or another for healing to occur. I was tired of people talking about their childhood feelings. After a while, though, I learned to value it where appropriate in an overall treatment plan. I began to separate human feeling from "Primal Feeling" and its inherent cultism. Primal Therapy became a memory, like the social upheavals of the Sixties, of a turbulent and self-involved time whose meaning eluded me. I began to develop competency working with people who had different problems -- from child abuse to marital conflict to depression. I worked for a number of different agencies and within different legal and bureaucratic contexts. I worked with three different cultures: African- American, Caucasian, and American Indian. I found some good teachers and supervisors. I learned from them, from my clients, from my successes and my mistakes. With difficulty, I learned the value of taking a point of view yet keeping an open mind: developing a flexibility in my therapeutic approach. Over time, I filled the gaps until I began to work as a reasonably competent therapist. My personal life had grown along with my professional life. I had widened my social world, developed a variety of interests and friendships. I married and had a daughter. I took a primary and active role in her beginning life. I felt I had rejoined the human race. As with other "Post Primals," I discovered my problems hadn't been cured. I needed to return to therapy at different times over the years. In some ways, the Primal experience had made it even harder to accept help from others. I had been burned, and trust came less easily. Yet I also knew of a certain depth of feeling within me, and I wanted a therapy which attended to that. So Primal thinking still worked, in part, to isolate me from effective treatment for my problems. Certain basic issues remained untreated, issues I'd entered Primal Therapy to cure when I was 25 years old. My marriage broke up in 1988. In the aftermath of that, Primal Therapy reentered my life and invited me back into its world -- in the form of a job offer. I couldn't believe it. No therapist who'd left there had ever come back, and I'd been gone seven years. They said much had changed: Art was gone. Vivian was about to retire. All the abusive and unethical practices were gone. It was a smaller organization devoted to doing good therapy. They were neither isolated nor arrogant as in the past. They didn't think Primal was the "only" way any more. They respected other therapies. It was a good offer. Part time work for better pay than my full time job. I could start a private practice that was separate from the Institute. I was being hired to provide competent Primal Therapy, but I didn't have to buy into a "Primal Party Line." I could see couples and families from time to time. Strangely enough, I accepted the invitation. For four months I lived again in the world of Primal. Partly, it was the job; more than that, though, I think it was because I needed to come to some concrete resolution about the meaning of Primal Therapy in my life. It was like stepping into a time warp. Primal had been my life for so long, so intensely. I discovered, though, that I was different now. My world had grown and gained complexity and depth. I saw the Primal Institute as an employer, not a calling. There was a job to do, and it ended when I left there. I did the job as well as I knew how, with the skills, creativity, and perspective which I'd gained. I respected the basic psychodynamic principles on which Primal was based, and I figured I could deal with whatever cult aspects remained. The Institute had changed, mostly for the better. The more obvious unethical practices were a thing of the past. The staff was smaller and appeared to be better trained. There was more follow- up built into the system. The clients were highly motivated, a pleasure to work with. Quite soon, though, I realized that serious problems remained. People were still being seduced into the therapy by the old promise of quick transformation. They expected to be blasted into intense re-experiences of their childhood traumas, followed by the elimination of lifelong problems and symptoms -- all in a short time. This just doesn't happen. The Primal Therapy described in the books had stopped being practiced years before, because it didn't work. That "assault" on the defense system that elicits "Primals" creates more problems than it cures, and they knew it. To state this publicly, though, would be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. So, when patients start therapy, they learn that Primal has "evolved." Their expectations are out of date. Primal Therapy had been "improved" by time and experience. It's neither as intense nor as speedy as expected. It goes at a "natural" pace. To an outsider it might seem to be a hybrid psychodynamic therapy, masquerading as something called Primal. This is not what the newcomers are told. They are told that Art's basic theory remains a beautiful and revolutionary discovery. It stands alone in the world of psychotherapy. Its uniqueness is revealed by the intensive three weeks in the dimly-lit padded rooms, the Primal language taught to newcomers, and the complex world view of Primal. Patients are taught that Primal is the "only reality;" all else is "false;" without Primal, one remains "split off" and "unfeeling;" everything is secondary to "feeling your old feelings;" you have to "be straight," "take risks," "stop acting out," and follow a host of similar rules and regulations (some stated, others implied). Repression, above all, is forbidden. "Feeling" is everything. Most of patients' "present reality" is seen as a symbolic acting out of "old feelings" from childhood. Patients learn to "use" their present feelings and relationships with others to "get to" their "old" feelings. The Past replaces the Present. After the three weeks, the Primal community reinforces these Truths and maintains the rules. This is done in Primal houses, Primal boxes, Primal jobs, Primal parties, and, of course, the Primal volleyball game. One house even flew their own Primal flag. The therapy is now a kind of "Bait and Switch" operation. The bait is what people read in Janov's books ("old-style Primal Therapy"). The switch is to the hybrid psychodynamic therapy being practiced. The initial three weeks is used as a complex indoctrination and rationalization to explain why the therapy isn't what it was advertised to be; that, instead, it is something better. The recipients of this are desperate, emotionally troubled people who come from a distance to a new city. They come here for a short time, stay here (illegally for some) to finish the therapy and find that years pass. They wait for that Primal which will transform them, and it never seems to come. When they object to this, or question it, they are encouraged to feel the underlying "feelings" to get to the childhood root of the problem. If that doesn't work, they are told they need to do different things "in their life." Complaints are treated as "struggles," and they are told to stop it if they want to become real. If they don't, they are eased out of therapy, labeled as "neurotic," "unreal," or "untreatable." The Therapy takes responsibility for changes that are positive. Failure is always the fault of the patient. Patients' vulnerability, low self-esteem, and high expectations make them easy to indoctrinate into the Primal mind-set. Perhaps if the therapy were effective it would be okay. But when the results don't happen, it becomes a destructive process. So, it is still a lie, based on the false promise of the original lie. Without lies, though, there is no Primal world, no therapy, no community. The community of Primal People lives in Los Angeles, Europe, and around the world. It has taken on different shapes and sizes over the past twenty-odd years (and they have been odd), but the basic mind-set remains strong and relentless. It strands so many in a limbo of waiting and hope and denial and despair. It came clear to me that "Primal Therapy" was a construct which didn't work at any level. The original theory was straight out of the Freudian paradigm with some added twists. The main purpose, though, was to make Janov famous and rich. Even without him, it remained a cult. I didn't want to be a part of that. Two months after I returned to work there, somebody burned down the Primal Institute. If I needed any further evidence of the problems inherent in perpetuation of this lie, that was it. I left the Primal Institute for the last time. I went into private practice full time. Only this time, I didn't leave Primal behind. Instead of forgetting, I decided to explore the meaning of Primal Therapy for myself and others. I wanted to give it a context and perspective that made sense and resolved -- or at least made public -- the contradictions, lies, value, and experience which makes up the Primal world. I spoke in public last year about my conclusions. This article is the second step. I'm working on a much longer manuscript which I hope to finish soon. Art's lie is a tricky one, easy to dismiss and easy to misunderstand. Those who believe it are left in a vulnerable and confusing place. Those who have left remain silent. Those who remain only write variations on the basic theme. From outside, it's easy to dismiss Primals as weirdoes. From inside, it's the True and Only way. All non-Primals are doomed to unreality. For two years, part of my private practice has been providing therapy to people who've been involved in Primal Therapy. I have realized how stuck people get in the Primal thinking. I have treated people who have been stuck for almost two decades. It's frightening to see the power of enchantment which Art's words have cast over people. It's heartening to see that people can break the spell. Janov has come out with his book, The New Primal Scream. I can't imagine there could be an interest like there was twenty years ago, but stranger things have happened. Reagan, after all, was re-elected president. Janov now claims that his therapy can strengthen the immune system to provide protection and/or alleviation from cancers and AIDS symptoms. He describes how Primal Therapy reversed the symptoms of a three-year-old girl who had AIDS. He is aiming his promise at vulnerable and desperate people in an unforgivable way. I feel a deep responsibility to share my experience with the community which I helped to create. Perhaps as part of my own healing process, I need to give something back. So Primal Therapy doesn't work. Once this is acknowledged, alternatives become possible. None are easy. There's no simple, quick cure. Healing is a complex process. The following are some steps people might find themselves taking if they decide to leave a cult:
Physical separation: One must actually separate from the people and places which reinforce the cult mind-set.
Breaking the ritual: Stop the addictive habit of thinking that you need to "feel a feeling" to solve every problem or whenever you feel bad.
Decompression: a floating kind of disorientation, ambivalence, and depression. Uncertain who you are or where you're going. Expect it; watch out you don't try to "Primal" it away; experience it -- it'll be a part of your life for a while.
Anger and loss: As with an eating disorder, Primal intrudes into an essential area of human activity, our emotional life. These feelings need to be dealt with in a different way. Sometimes long periods of repression are necessary at first. Remember, it's okay (even necessary) to repress things at times.
Reconnection with the person you were before you came: your hopes, dreams, desires, and interests. This can be an exciting time of discovery as the world begins to open up for you. Expect uncertainty and anxiety as well.
Creating a place in the world for yourself; friends, family, work, fun, community. Widen your context and your perspective. There are many possibilities in the world.
Acknowledge and honor the needs which attracted you into the cult and which were satisfied by that tightly controlled world.
If necessary, get professional help: this could include groups with others who have shared the experience. This is not always necessary. Many can leave without professional help, if they have work, friends, and interests which are supportive.
Attend to the problems which made you seek Primal in the first place: Chances are some of them will still be around causing you havoc. It's a terrible feeling to have spent years "in therapy" only to discover the same old awful problems in your life. A lot of anger and hopelessness here.
Hanging on: If you do seek professional help, watch out for all the comparisons you'll be making wherein the "new" therapy won't compare well at all with the Primal one. You'll ask, "Don't you BELIEVE in FEELINGS?" and the therapist won't know what you mean. Remember, feelings are just one of many human processes and experiences: there's nothing to "believe" in. Also, the new therapy won't satisfy your addictive need for intensity. That will be hard [at] times but ultimately is a good thing.
Shame: It brings many to Primal Therapy in the first place, and it finds a convenient hiding place in those dark rooms and that "special" world. When you leave, it can emerge like a serpent from hell to torment you. It is tamable.
Separate what has been of value in the Primal experience: It's not an all-or-nothing proposition. Some of what you learned and experienced may be of great importance in your life. Honor that.
I'm writing this from my experience and the perspective it's given me. Other people, obviously, have different views of the "same" events and processes. I see reality as a multi-leveled complexity through time and space -- ultimately unknowable. We see bits and pieces, and these change even as we are observing them. It's wonderful and frightening. I am glad we can't know it all. It makes for an interesting journey. Copyright Curtis Knecht 1991"
reprinted with permission